As far as I know, the church at the time strictly forbade all heretical manifestations and was very strong. So I could not think sects existed at that time. But reading the book by Victor Hugo, "The Man Who Laughs", I found mention of at least three sects with its own buildings (not just secret meeting in someone's home). How was this possible?

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    The word "sect" has no generally accepted definition that is useful. You might want to consider using another one. Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 17:24
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    Which church? Church of England? Roman Catholic Church? Are you referring to nonconformists? What does "heretical manifestations" have to do with sects?
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 18:10
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    I seem to recall that "dissenter" and "non-conformist" in the 18th century meant a Protestant in England who did not belong to the established church. The Reverend Thomas Bayes was a dissenting (Presbyterian) minister in Tunbridge Wells who died in 1761. People who today consider themselves his followers are called "Bayesians", but that is not a religious sect but rather a position in the philosophical foundations of probability, adhering to a degree-of-belief interpretation, rather than a relative-frequency interpretation, of probability. So the fact that in those days....... Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 15:18
  • .....many intellectuals were clergymen, extended to "dissenters" as well as to Catholics and Anglicans. Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 15:19

3 Answers 3


The Church of England permitted nonconforming or dissident sects. They were not members of the CoE, but only the Roman Catholics were officially prohibited.

@T.E.D. questions whether it was illegal to be Roman Catholic. The situation is not entirely black and white, but

After a brief experiment with Protestantism under his son Edward VI (1547-53) and a brief return to Catholicism under his elder daughter Mary I (1555-58), England officially became Protestant in 1559 under his younger daughter Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Except under the Catholic James II (1685-88), Catholicism remained illegal for the next 232 years. Papal Visit

Not precisely an unbiased source, so....

Another Act of Supremacy was passed in 1559 under Elizabeth I, along with an Act of Uniformity which made worship in Church of England compulsory. Wikipedia

@T.E.D provides the following links

(I've marked this community wiki to permit others to contribute to the full picture of religious predjudice at the time. I believe that although the OP asked a focused question, a real answer requires a broader understanding).

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    I didn't think it was illegal just to be Catholic. It was however not legal for a Catholic to have most (if not any) part in the government, including in the Royal Family. This situation is where the US Constitution got its "no religious test" clause. However, Catholics were looked at with extreme suspicion.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 31, 2013 at 12:40
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    Actually, surfing around, this wiki link may be more enlightening, by showing what situations were repealed. The page on Recusancy also has some good info, including a map of Catholicism in England in the 18th century. It was indeed worse than I thought.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 1, 2013 at 12:29
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    @T.E.D. In Britain the monarch and the prime minister must be members of the Church of England. This has not changed. Tony Blair converted to Catholicism only after stepping down as PM.
    – fdb
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 17:35
  • @fdb Prime Ministers do not need to be members of the Church of England. To just take a few of many examples: Neville Chamberlain was a Unitarian. Ramsay MacDonald and Gordon Brown, to the extent they had a religious affiliation at all, would have been Presbyterian. Michael Howard tried to become Prime Minister while being Jewish but lost the General Election. Boris Johnson may have been Roman Catholic while being PM at least on the day of his third wedding in Westminster Cathedral. Rishi Sunak is Hindu. The only legal issue is the appointment of bishops, usually delegated to someone else.
    – Henry
    Commented Mar 7, 2023 at 14:36

"The Man Who Laughs" is set in England during the 17th century (not 18th). It was a time of religious conflict, with for example James II being Roman Catholic and taking steps towards religious freedom. The church did not have a strong grip on peoples religions at this time.

Heresy was indeed illegal, but it is not automatically heretical to have your own religious group and meetings. Heresy was more strict than that. So there was definitely several religious groups in England at this time. Some of them were persecuted, and this in fact was a strong incentive for some people to move to the American colonies. But not all groups were persecuted, because not all non-conformism was heretical.

  • At least a half of novel is set during 18th century. Thank you for a good answer.
    – 9Algorithm
    Commented Nov 14, 2013 at 5:57

By the 18th century, all of Britain's anti-herecy laws would likely have been abolished (or at least no longer enforced), so it's probable that multiple sects would have coexisted in Britain at the time.

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